The thyroid gland is located in the neck, and produces hormones that manage our basic metabolism and regulate how we use energy. The hormones secreted influence almost every cell, tissue and organ of the body, impact our appetite and digestion, heart rate, sleep cycles, physical growth, body weight, emotions and much more. In this way, the thyroid can be thought of as a kind of metabolic brain of the body.
Thyroid Dysfunction and its Causes
Compared to one or two generations ago, thyroid dysfunction is now remarkably common. Many people, women in particular, are living with chronic thyroid issues and taking medication. Hashimoto’s (low thyroid function) and Grave’s disease (hyperactive thyroid function) are two examples.
From an Ayurvedic perspective, the thyroid is considered part of majja dhatu – a deep tissue of the body that is difficult to access and treat. Most thyroid dysfunction is in part due to chronic physical and mental toxins and stresses that over-stimulate and inflame the system, which subsequently loses its intelligence, and malfunctions. Thyroid issues also involve weakness of the digestive fires in the intestine, liver and deeper tissues.
Today much thyroid dysfunction is seen to be an “auto-immune disease”, where the body’s immune system fails to recognize the thyroid gland as part of the body’s own tissue and attacks it as if it were a foreign entity. Attack by the immune system impairs thyroid function and sometimes destroys the gland altogether. Instead of auto-immune disease, Ayurveda sees this as a break down in the intelligence of the body due to the presence of toxins, and digestive and dosha imbalance.
Other possible causes or contributors include:
- One, two or all three dosha can be imbalanced and involved in thyroid pathology.
- Diet – such as an iodine- or copper- deficient diet; a diet high in foods that interfere with thyroid hormone production (see dietary guidelines below); foods that imbalance the doshas.
- Pharmaceutical medications can directly damage the thyroid.
- Environmental contaminants – industrial chemicals such as PCBs, radiation leaks; the many oral and airborne toxins that the thyroid takes in.
These last two points are likely to be common reasons for the recent increase in thyroid disease.
Symptoms of Thyroid Disease
- Appetite changes
- Weight changes
- Heart rate irregularities
- Tingling, numbness or trembling in the hands
- Heightened sensitivity to cold or heat
- Muscle pain or weakness
- Change in bowel habits
- Irregular or light menstrual periods
- Lethargy or anxiety or irritability
- Problems with memory and concentration
- Disturbed sleep
- Changes in libido
Because many of the above symptoms are common, and occur in a range of imbalanced states, thyroid dysfunction often occurs for some time before the specific issue is noted.
However, thyroid problems need to be treated as soon as possible. The longer the pathology develops, the more damage to the organ, and the harder they are to treat.
From an Ayurvedic perspective, because the thyroid is a “deep” tissue, treatments are often long in duration, and require that the metabolism regains fundamental balance and function before the thyroid can be healed.
To support holistic healing, Ayurvedic treatments tend to target the digestion, eliminate excess dosha and clear and cleanse the channels and tissues through diet, lifestyle, and herbs, in order to balance the innate constitution and support thyroid function.
- Choose organically-grown foods that are free of agricultural chemicals
- Reduce or ideally eliminate all animal products.
- Strengthen and balance the digestive fires through mild fasting, and eating digestion-stimulating foods such as fresh ginger, cumin and cinnamon.
- Choose foods and eating behaviours to reduce excess dosha and support the balance of one’s innate constitution.
- Strengthen “ojas” (the body’s nourishing essence) and the immune system through small, regular intake of nutritious, building, digestible foods such as almonds (pre-soaked, peeled), flax seeds (pre-soaked), ghee, coconut oil.
- Ensure adequate dietary iodine, copper, zinc, selenium, iron, magnesium, tyrosine.
- Store and consume drinking water from a copper vessel.
- Don’t overdo (or drink raw juice of) foods that temporarily decrease the body’s ability to absorb iodine. This includes raw spinach, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, rutabagas, peanuts, peaches, soybeans, too many soy products. This is especially important if suffering from low thyroid function.
- Establish a daily routine (dinacharya) that helps to gently cleanse the physical body and supports dosha balance.
- Engage in regular, dosha-appropriate physical activity.
- Spend time in the early morning or late afternoon sun.
- Practice yoga postures that stimulate flow of blood and prana to and through the thyroid gland, such as halasana.
- Have regular relaxing, cleansing, dosha-balancing massage.
- Meditate daily.
Don’t be in a rush. Most strategies to manage thyroid dysfunction require consistent change over many months, and even years. Thyroid medications, such as ‘thyroxine’ also take a long time to cease. Seek out an experienced Ayurvedic practitioner for guidance, and the prescription of herbal therapies.
Bharthi V, Kavya N, Shubhashree MN, Bhat S. Herbal approach to management of thyroid disease – a review. J Ayu Herb Med 2017;3(1):48-52.